Disco-Era Darling: The Chevrolet Monte Carlo

Certain cars become emblematic of a time and a place, perfectly encapsulating the values, priorities, and obsessions of their eras. For America of the fifties, it’s the 1955–57 Chevrolets and the 1959 Cadillac; for the sixties, the Mini, the Beetle, and the Mustang. For the seventies, we’d make a strong case for the Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Generally reviled by critics, staggeringly popular with the public, and much imitated, the Monte Carlo remains as powerful a symbol of the period as disco balls, platform shoes, and The Brady Bunch. This week, we explore the history of the Monte Carlo and consider the reasons for its immense — and ultimately ephemeral — popularity.

1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo badge


We freely admit that we didn’t really get this one. Spotting a Chevrolet Monte Carlo at a recent car show, our Baby-Boom-generation companions all agreed, with some conviction, that the Monte Carlo was “a really nice car.”

Frankly, it left us scratching our head. We’re well aware, of course, that Chevrolet sold an amazing number of Monte Carlos — close to half a million of the first generation, 1.6 million of the second — so our friends were not alone in their appreciation. That a lot of people loved the Monte is obvious; the question of why is a little more elusive. The Monte Carlo was, as Car and Driver aptly (if rather derisively) characterized it, a dinner-jacketed Chevelle: that is, a perfectly ordinary domestic intermediate dressed up with exaggerated proportions and vaguely neo-Classical ‘formal’ design cues. Not being overly fond of Chevelles to begin with, we were a little puzzled as to why so many people would pay extra for the fancy-dress version.

To understand the Monte Carlo’s rationale, we must first go back to the 1958 model year and Ford’s introduction of the first four-seat Thunderbird. The Square Bird, as its fans have come to know it, inaugurated a new genre of American automobiles, the personal luxury car. (Ford had actually coined the term “personal car” with the launch of the original two-seat Thunderbird in 1955, but the concept didn’t really find its métier until the T-Bird grew a back seat, putting an end to any presumption that it was a sports car.)

1970 Ford Thunderbird front 3q
By 1970, when the firs Chevrolet Monte Carlo debuted, the Thunderbird was in its sixth generation, sporting a beak-like proboscis apparently requested by former Pontiac general manager Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, who was Ford’s president for about 18 months in 1968-1969. The Thunderbird was far more expensive than the Monte Carlo and did not compete directly with the Chevy until it was downsized in 1977.

What’s a personal luxury car? To answer that requires that we first consider a more basic question: What is a luxury car? If we dispense with the press-booklet arguments about advanced engineering, meticulous craftsmanship, and lavish comfort — all of which are nice, but not strictly necessary — the ultimate aspiration of the luxury car is to make its buyers seem rich and successful whether they actually are or not.

Some buyers, though, are not content with merely looking affluent; they want their possessions to express their taste and distinction (and set them apart from their peers, who are trying to do the same thing). Before the war, the wealthy could always send off their new luxury cars — or even a bare chassis, if they were feeling especially extravagant — for custom coachwork. Such bespoke jobs were for the few and with the Depression and the outbreak of war, the number of buyers who could justify such expense dropped sharply. After the war, European automakers like Alfa Romeo took advantage of a surfeit of underemployed carrozzerie to offer stylish, low-production coupe and convertible versions of their normal sedans. In America, automotive customization became a mostly amateur sport.

In the early fifties, GM offered a couple of stylish, limited-production convertibles, the Cadillac Eldorado, the Buick Skylark, and the Oldsmobile Fiesta, that reflected the growing influence of the “Kalifornia Kustom” movement. The idea of a factory-built car with the flair of a custom job struck a chord, but the GM offerings were labor-intensive to produce and sold in limited numbers for daunting prices. Ford followed them in 1955 with the original Thunderbird, which looked not unlike an attractively shortened, sectioned, and chopped Ford convertible. The Thunderbird was attainably priced, if not cheap, but with only two seats, it was still not a practical proposition for most buyers.

Ford finally put all the pieces together with the Square Bird. In four-seat hardtop form, the Thunderbird was reasonably practical, but it was in no danger of being mistaken for a mundane sedan. It was cheap enough to put it within the reach of middle-class buyers, but not so cheap as to seem common. Moreover, while the Thunderbird’s odd mix of formal roof and sports car design cues failed to impress purists, it successfully bridged a wide array of tastes. The Square Bird quickly outsold its sportier predecessor and became a lucrative profit-maker for Ford. Within a remarkably short time, it became a clearly established brand even with the critics who decried its so-so performance and extravagant styling.


During this period, Ford and General Motors — and most particularly Ford and Chevrolet — were engaged in open war. Their battle for supremacy resulted in continual one-upmanship and aggressive sales tactics, which hastened the demise of many of the beleaguered independent automakers. Any move by one side was frequently met by a hasty counter-move by the other.

Curiously, however, Chevrolet consistently lagged behind Ford in product development. It took Chevrolet two years to respond to the Ford Ranchero car/pickup, two years to respond to the intermediate Fairlane, and two and a half years to respond to the Mustang. In the case of the Thunderbird, Chevy almost didn’t respond at all. GM began making tentative stabs in the four-seat ‘bird’s direction from 1961 to 1963 with the Oldsmobile Starfire, Pontiac Grand Prix, and the Buick Riviera, but Chevrolet had nothing to offer.

1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo hood
A key design feature of both the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix was a very long hood. From 1968 to 1977, GM’s A-body intermediates had two wheelbases: 112 inches (2,845 mm) for two-doors, 116 inches (2,964 mm) for four-doors. The Monte Carlo — offered only as a two-door hardtop — rode a special version of the four-door frame with the extra 4 inches (102 mm) of wheelbase inserted ahead of the firewall.

The reason, curiously, was that the Chevrolet organization didn’t want to play. Then-general manager Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen could have had the design that became the Buick Riviera, but rejected it on the grounds that Chevrolet already had too many cars. Moreover, while Chevrolet dealers undoubtedly wanted a Thunderbird rival, the division’s sales organization, then led by Lee Mays, didn’t see the point. Mays, an extremely conservative man who likely bore considerable responsibility for the Chevrolet’s rather dated advertising and marketing of the mid-sixties, was stubbornly resistant to what were then known as “specialty cars.” (In this, he was not alone within GM; Pontiac sales manager Frank Bridge resisted the GTO for very similar reasons.) Chevrolet dealers became increasingly frustrated that the division seemed out of step with market trends, but Mays remained unmoved. Knudsen could not have been pleased with that, but he had his sights set on upper management and probably preferred not to antagonize the well-connected Mays.

By 1967, however, Chevrolet was under new management. Pete Estes, the dynamic general manager of Pontiac, replaced Bunkie Knudsen as general manager in July 1965. Estes, who had made Pontiac No. 3 in the industry, was under considerable pressure to improve Chevrolet’s market share and profit margins, which had been slipping badly. He was also more conscious than many GM executives of the value of high-profit image leaders.

Estes and Dave Holls, then group chief designer for Chevrolet cars and trucks, were well aware of the Thunderbird and of the growing popularity of coupes in general. In the mid-sixties, two-door hardtops were the most popular models of most lines, even the family cars. The most popular car in America in the late sixties, by a substantial margin, was the Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe. Furthermore, by 1967, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and even Cadillac all had big, stylish personal coupes, each acclaimed for its dynamic styling. Chevrolet had the Camaro and Corvette, of course, but those appealed to a different audience, as did the intermediate Chevelle SS.

Holls and Estes concurred that there would be a market for a stylish ‘personal’ Chevrolet, especially if it were reasonably priced. The problem was that the division’s tooling budget was already stretched thin. While Chevrolet had deep pockets, it also had an abundance of products and more than two dozen different models. As Bunkie Knudsen had told Bill Mitchell six years earlier, it appeared that the last thing the division needed was another car.


In the spring of 1967, Pontiac product planning chief Ben Harrison proposed a radical revamp of that division’s personal luxury car, the Grand Prix. The Grand Prix had previously been based on the B-body (used by the Pontiac Catalina and full-sized Chevrolets), but its sales had slumped badly and Pontiac general manager John DeLorean was seriously considering axing it.

Harrison suggested moving the Grand Prix to the intermediate A-body instead, albeit using the long-wheelbase chassis of the sedan rather than the shorter wheelbase of the two-door coupes. Pontiac design chief Jack Humbert and designer Wayne Vieira developed an aggressive-looking coupe with a very long hood, a short deck, and a formal-looking roof with broad sail panels. It would share much of its structure with the intermediate Le Mans, but it looked distinctly different.

1969 Pontiac Grand Prix front 3q
The 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix shares a great deal with the Chevrolet Monte Carlo structurally, but other than the roof sail panels, they look quite different and have different engines. The Grand Prix was significantly more expensive than the Monte Carlo and it appears Chevrolet poached a fair number of Grand Prix sales in 1970.

DeLorean loved the design, but the tooling costs of the new roof were a stretch for his 1969 budget. However, DeLorean presented the “A-Special” concept to Estes — who had been DeLorean’s boss at Pontiac — who agreed to split the tooling costs for the additional panel in exchange for allowing Chevrolet to use the same roof starting in 1970.

1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo  front 3q
The 1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo was 205.8 inches (5,227 mm) long, 8.6 inches (218 mm) longer than a Chevelle or Malibu coupe; 1971-72 Montes were 0.7 inches (18 mm) longer than the 1970 model. Curb weight with the small-block V8 was around 3,800 pounds (1,724 kg), about 150 lb (68 kg) more than a Malibu with the same engine. The Monte Carlo’s fender skirts were optional. From the front, the Monte Carlo’s flared fenders are readily apparent. According to Dave Holls, they were simply an exaggerated version of the theme already present on the 1970 Chevelle, which he likened to European rally cars. This is actually a 1972 car, identifiable by its eggcrate grille.


The design Dave Holls selected for Chevrolet’s “G-car” (as the Grand Prix was known internally) was the work of a young designer named Terry R. Henline. Henline had made an impression at GM while still in high school through his participation in the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild Model Car Contest, a program sponsored by GM’s Fisher Body division from 1930 through 1968. About one-third of the Craftsman’s Guild participants went on to careers in the auto industry, including Bob Cadaret (who designed the 1956 Corvette), Virgil Exner Jr., and future GM styling VP Chuck Jordan. Henline, a finalist in both 1957 and 1958, joined GM Styling in 1961 and by 1967 was part of the Chevrolet studio under Dave Holls.

Taking the Cadillac Eldorado as a loose conceptual starting point, Henline’s design had bulging, flared fenders that evoked the separate fenders of prewar cars. Those fenders ended in sharply pointed caps, which at the rear incorporated thin, inset taillights and a “floating” bumper. The jutting grille, inspired by Rolls-Royce, was offset by single headlamps rather than the quad lamps of the Chevelle and other contemporary GM cars. Henline’s G-car rendering was enthusiastically received by Pete Estes and Styling VP Bill Mitchell and the full-size clay was subsequently approved for production.

1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo rear
The first-generation Chevrolet Monte Carlo’s sail panels and deep-set tail lights help to camouflage the fact that both the backlight and decklid are identical to those of the two-door Chevelle. The tail light design later appeared on the 1973 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, a direct competitor to the Monte Carlo.

The Chevrolet Monte Carlo’s design was criticized by some contemporary reviewers as too retrograde, but it was in keeping with a broader trend to more formal — and decidedly more ornate — design. As the Monte Carlo’s commercial success made clear, the American public responded to that idiom with enthusiasm. The Monte Carlo would become one of the most profitable cars Chevrolet had yet introduced, a thorough validation of Estes’ and Holls’ original concept.

1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo rear 3q
The broad sail panels of the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix were stylish, but caused significant blind spots and made the rear seat feel even more claustrophobic than it was. (Despite the Monte Carlo’s ample bulk, interior room was far from generous.) This car’s bare roof is unusual. Many Monte Carlos had the optional padded vinyl top, a $126 option available in a choice of five colors. Optional rear fender skirts make it look lower than its 52.9-inch (1,344mm) overall height.


The main reason the Monte Carlo was so profitable for Chevrolet was that it had a great deal in common with the A-body Chevelle/Malibu intermediates. In fact, the Monte Carlo differed from the Chevelle only in its front clip, rear fenders, sail panels, and outer doors. Even the upper roof panel was shared with the Chevelle hardtop.

The dashboard was cribbed from the Chevelle as well, but to make it seem more like a luxury car, Chevrolet interior designers covered with woodgrain appliqué, allegedly a photostatic copy of the burled-elm trim of the contemporary Rolls-Royce. While bucket seats had always been part of the Ford Thunderbird’s image, the Monte Carlo came standard with a bench seat in front, mostly to keep the price down; buckets were a $121 option. The Monte Carlo did have somewhat nicer upholstery than the Chevelle, however, offering slick nylon, vinyl, or a combination of the two in a variety of color schemes.

Mechanically, the Monte Carlo was almost pure Chevelle. The Monte’s base suspension was slightly stiffer to account for the extra weight of the longer nose, but extra sound insulation made the ride seem smoother than that of the Monte’s A-body siblings. Monte Carlos also had standard front disc brakes, which still cost extra on most Chevelles. The engine lineup, too, was similar to that of the A-body line, although the Monte’s base engine was a 350 cu. in. (5,733 cc) V8 with a two-barrel carburetor, a $26.35 option on V8 Chevelles.

1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo front
Engine options on first-generation Chevrolet Monte Carlos included a four-barrel version of the base 350 cu. in. (5,733 cc) engine and, curiously, two different 400 cu. in. (6.6 L) engines. One, the Turbo-Fire 400, was a 400 cu. in. (6,570 cc cc) version of the familiar Chevy small block, essentially a 350 with a longer stroke. The other, the Turbo-Jet 400, was actually 402 cu. in. (6,587 cc), an over-bored version of the big-block 396 (6,488 cc) engine introduced in 1965. The top option, rarely ordered, was the Turbo-Jet 454 (7,443 cc) V8 with 360 gross horsepower (267 kW) in 1970 and 365 hp (272 kW) in 1971. For 1972, Chevy switched to net horsepower ratings, which were 165 hp (123 kW) for the base engine, 175 hp (131 kW) for the four-barrel 350, 170 hp (127 kW) for the 400, 240 hp (179 kW) with the 402, and 270 hp (201 kW) with the 454.

The upside to all this parts-bin engineering was a reasonable price tag. Starting price for the 1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo was $3,123, about $200 more than a similarly equipped Malibu hardtop. With automatic transmission, power steering, and radio — almost always ordered — most Monte Carlos listed for at least $3,600 and a loaded SS454 could approach a hefty $5,500. On the other hand, the Ford Thunderbird, which had its own body and chassis, shared only with the Lincoln Continental Mark III, started at around $5,000 and seldom went out the door for less than $6,000. Pontiac’s Grand Prix, meanwhile, started at just under $4,000. In short, not only did Chevrolet finally have a personal luxury coupe of its own, it was the cheapest car in its segment.

Monte Carlo sales were robust from the beginning. A telling sign of the demand was the fact that dealer discounts were often hard to come by — a rarity for any American car of the time, much less a Chevrolet. Sales remained strong in 1971 despite production lost to a protracted UAW strike and climbed nearly 50% for 1972.


Contrary to the assumptions of some modern enthusiasts, the Monte Carlo was not a muscle car and Chevrolet didn’t market it as one; the Monte Carlo was not really aimed at separate and rapidly diminishing performance market, which had been hit hard by high insurance costs.

The sole exception was the SS454 package offered on the Monte Carlo in 1970 and 1971. The option was not particularly successful, finding fewer than 6,000 buyers in two years. We suspect that the mandatory big engine had a lot to do with that — the SS454 had ample performance, but was no match for the hottest contemporary Supercars (largely because it weighed about 150 pounds (68 kg) more than a comparably equipped Chevelle), it was thirsty, and it was pricey to insure. The SS option might have done better if it had been offered with more engine choices — about half of all Monte Carlo buyers were content with the mild-mannered base engine.

1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo dashboard
SS454 notwithstanding, most Chevrolet Monte Carlos were equipped like this one, with one of the small-block engines; Turbo Hydra-Matic; fake wood appliqué; and no instruments other than speedometer, clock, and fuel gauge. Comfort, not sport, was the watchword.

The Monte Carlo’s main enticement was not performance, but the fact that it looked and felt more expensive than it was. Furthermore, however many pieces it shared with the Chevelle under the skin, the Monte Carlo didn’t look like a Chevelle and its higher price brought a quieter, better-trimmed interior. For customers who aspired to a Thunderbird, but couldn’t afford even a Grand Prix, the Monte Carlo was just the ticket.


The second-generation Chevrolet Monte Carlo was originally supposed to bow for 1972, along with the next-generation A-bodies, but the lengthy UAW strike in the fall of 1970 delayed it for a full year. It finally appeared in late 1972 as a ’73 model.

While the design of the first-generation Monte Carlo was largely the work of one designer, the second generation was a team effort, led by Chevrolet Assistant Chief Designer Dave Clark. For the revamped Monte, the designers took the original’s flared-fender, formal-roof themes to new and exaggerated extremes. The front end, the work of designer Charles Stewart, still had round headlights, but they were now carried in Jaguar-like blisters that extended back into the heroically long hood. The previous car’s fender bulges now swept dramatically into the doors, reminiscent of the “suitcase fenders” of GM’s early-forties cars.

1974 Chevrolet Monte Carlo sculpting
Designer Charles Stewart believes his former colleague Ted Polak (later a designer on the Buick Reatta) may have developed the “bas-relief” side sculpture of the 1973 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Similar side sculptures were also used on the Buick Century Luxus and Regal coupes.

A new feature, shared with the other G-cars, was a small, fixed “opera window” on either sail panel. The origins of the opera window are somewhat obscure. Irv Rybicki, who later became GM’s Styling VP, later said they originated with the Monte Carlo design team at Chevrolet, which may have been correct, although even some of the designers involved are no longer certain. In any case, the windows first saw the light of day on the 1971 Cadillac Eldorado hardtop. Although the idea for the opera windows came from Chevrolet, Ribicki convinced Ed Cole and Bill Mitchell to offer the windows on the Cadillac first, judging that doing so would then serve to boost the image of the intermediates. Ribicki was correct; although critics generally abhorred the opera windows, buyers loved them and they and subsequently appeared on a wide array of mid-seventies cars.


Like the original, the second-generation Chevrolet Monte Carlo won management approval with minimal changes, thanks in part to Rybicki’s dramatic presentation of the beautifully finished black-and-silver model to John DeLorean and a group of visiting senior executives as they toured the styling studios one afternoon. The ensuing applause ensured DeLorean’s immediate approval of the unmodified design.

1974 Chevrolet Monte Carlo opera window
Unlike ordinary rear quarter lights, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo’s opera windows were fixed, saving money and adding structural rigidity. They didn’t do much for rear visibility, however, which was still poor. This car has the sail panel medallion of the top-of-the-line Monte Carlo Landau model, but it’s missing the Landau’s key identification feature: the padded vinyl top.

While DeLorean asked for no tinkering with the exterior design of the new Monte Carlo, he called for a complete overhaul of its suspension. DeLorean was enamored of European luxury cars like Mercedes, with their firmer damping and sharper steering response. Detroit had always resisted the Mercedes approach out of a near-religious conviction that a cloud-like ride and effortless steering would sell more cars than confident handling, but DeLorean was determined to give the new Monte better road manners — an interesting choice considering the car’s not exactly sporting bent.

At DeLorean’s insistence, Chevrolet engineers retuned both the suspension and steering, adding radial tires and a rear anti-roll bar. The changes were modest, but they eliminated much of the first-generation Monte Carlo’s ride float and numb steering. Complaints from Chevrolet cost accountants meant that the radials and rear anti-roll bar were limited to the pricier Monte Carlo S and Landau models, but it barely mattered since the base model was selected by only a relative handful of buyers.


DeLorean was promoted to group vice president of the Car and Truck Group in October 1972, but his instincts regarding the Chevrolet Monte Carlo were quickly validated. Although the enthusiast press was generally aghast at the new Monte’s exterior design, they admitted that the ride and steering feel were much improved. No one claimed that the Monte Carlo was a sports car, but its body control was now quite respectable for a Detroit product and a vast improvement over its soggy predecessor.

1974 Chevrolet Monte Carlo side
The 1973 Chevrolet Monte Carlo was 210.4 inches (5,344 mm) long, 3.9 inches (99 mm) longer than before, on the same 116-inch (2,946mm) wheelbase as its predecessor. The 1974 Monte, with stouter bumpers front and back, was 212.7 inches (5,403 mm) long. Curb weight was now around 4,075 lb (1,849 kg) with the base engine, a hefty 4,400 lb (1,995 kg) with the big-blocks.

Customers, meanwhile, adored the Monte Carlo’s new look. As for the handling, if the firmer ride did not necessarily move buyers, they were not dissuaded by it either, snapping up 290,693 Monte Carlos the first year and more than 312,000 the second, outselling Chevrolet’s cheaper Malibu Colonnade coupes by nearly 2 to 1. Business slumped a bit in the 1975 model year, reflecting buyer unease following the 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo, but sales climbed to more than 353,000 for 1976.

The Monte Carlo’s continuing success was in spite of inflationary pricing, which took the base price from $3,415 in 1973 to nearly $5,000 in 1977. By then, the gap between the Malibu and the Monte Carlo had grown from around $200 to more than $700. Nevertheless, a whopping 411,038 Monte Carlos rolled out the door for 1977, about 25% more than the combined sales of all of Chevrolet’s other 1977 intermediates. The comparison suggests that many customers were simply buying Monte Carlos instead of Chevelles or Malibus, accepting the higher price for the Monte Carlo’s flashier styling.

1974 Chevrolet Monte Carlo front 3q
The 1973 Chevrolet Monte Carlo’s front and rear styling was developed by Chevrolet designer Charles Stewart, who won Dave Holls’ approval with an attractive airbrushed, full-size concept proposal. The 1974 Monte Carlos, like this one, have a different grille and larger parking lamps, but are otherwise similar to the ’73.

The Monte Carlo’s image also benefited from its domination of stock car racing during this period. Chevrolet Monte Carlos claimed the NASCAR Manufacturers Championship for Chevrolet seven times between 1972 and 1979. The connection between the racers and the street cars was tenuous — by 1976, many civilian Montes had an anemic 305 cu. in. (4,999 cc) V8 with only 140 net horsepower (104 kW) — but with gasoline and insurance still expensive, raw performance was not a high priority for most contemporary buyers. Strong sales of the increasingly flabby Corvette, Camaro, and Firebird make clear that looking fast was a greater priority to mid-seventies buyers than actually being fast.

Style, of course, was the Monte Carlo’s raison d’être. Overwrought though it may have been, the Monte Carlo’s considerable visual extravagance remained hugely popular, an aesthetic reflected in not only the Monte and its G-car cousins, but also the contemporary Dodge Charger, Ford Torino Elite, and Mercury Cougar, as well as the new Chrysler Cordoba (which adopted its own version of the Monte Carlo’s front-end theme).

By the late seventies, though, the Monte Carlo was clearly the leader of the pack, eclipsing even the Thunderbird. Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of its influence came in 1977, when Ford transferred the Thunderbird name to the midsize LTD II line (replacing the lackluster Torino Elite) and cut its base price to within $100 of the Monte. Thunderbird sales sextupled, although they still fell shy of the Monte Carlo by around 90,000 units.

1974 Chevrolet Monte Carlo rear 3q
Speed was never really a strong point of the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and its performance eroded throughout the seventies. By 1974, the base 350 (5,733 cc) engine was down to 145 hp (108 kW) and even the 454 cu. in. (7,443 cc) V8 had only 235 hp (175 kW). The 454 was rarely ordered and disappeared after 1975. California cars, like this one, were offered only with a four-barrel 350 with 160 hp (119 kW), or a four-barrel 400 cu. in. (6,570 cc) engine with 180 hp (134 kW).


The Chevrolet Monte Carlo was downsized in 1978 along with the rest of GM’s A-body intermediates. It now rode a 108.1-inch (2,746mm) wheelbase and was 13 inches (330 mm) shorter and some 700 pounds (318 kg) lighter than before. Although it retained the basic design themes of its predecessor, it was marginally more restrained in both size and décor.

The shrunken Monte Carlo sold strongly at first — nearly 360,000 units in the first year, 317,000 the second — but then dropped by half in 1980, a decline that a 1981 facelift only partly redressed. Bob Lund, who had become Chevrolet’s general manager in December 1974, tried to steer the Monte Carlo in a sportier direction, adding a new SS model and later a semi-fastback Aero Coupe for NASCAR homologation purposes, but annual sales never again topped 200,000 units. The G-cars (including the Buick Regal Grand Nationals) were profitable enough to survive until 1988, six years after the rest of the A-body intermediates switched to front-wheel drive, but by 1987–88, sales were fading rapidly.

1988 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS side
The last of the rear-wheel-drive Monte Carlos still bore a general resemblance to their 1973–1977 counterparts, but they were tidier in size and less extravagant of curve. Base LS Monte Carlos of this vintage had either a 262 cu. in. (4,299 cc) V6 or 305 cu. in. (4,999 cc) V8, but SS models like this 1988 car had a high-output 305 with 180 net horsepower (134 kW).

The Monte Carlo name lay fallow until 1995, when Chevy resurrected it for a rather ordinary front-drive coupe based on the W-body Lumina. Although it was wholly undistinguished — and largely ignored by the automotive press — it managed to survive the collapse of the big-coupe market in the nineties, which claimed even the venerable Thunderbird. The FWD Monte Carlo sold well enough to earn a rather heavy-handed restyling for 2000 and an optional V8 engine for 2006, finally expiring at the end of the 2007 model year. Sales hovered around 70,000 units for a while — the peak was 2001, with 72,596 — but by the end, the Monte had become a niche item appealing mostly to old-school Chevy fans.


The Chevrolet Monte Carlo neatly encapsulates the two great themes of mid-seventies American culture: hedonism and ostentation. The seventies were not a particularly happy or pleasant time for America, with a shaky economy, rampant inflation, and the lingering malaise of Watergate, Vietnam, and the energy crisis. That gloomy climate created a bull market for symbols of opulence and the Monte Carlo in its heyday was certainly that. It’s difficult to resist the parallel with Tony Manero, John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever: a working-class guy struggling to transcend his roots through sheer flamboyance.

The Monte Carlo’s popularity makes much more sense when considered in the context of its time. In the mid-seventies, the choices available to a new-car buyer looking for style and distinction were not abundant. There were the F-bodies (Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird/Trans Am), but their minuscule passenger and cargo space made them impractical for many customers. The same was true of the Corvette and the Datsun Z-car, whose prices were a long stretch for a working-class breadwinner in any case. There was the Pinto-based Ford Mustang II, which also sold well, and a host of tape-stripe pseudo-performance models like the latter-day Oldsmobile 442. For would-be urban cowboys, there was also an assortment of pick-up trucks and sport-utility vehicles like the Ford Bronco or the Monte Carlo’s coupe-pickup cousin, the Chevrolet El Camino. The high-end imported cars so beloved of the automotive press were out of reach for the masses, while most low-end imports were frugal and utilitarian, not stylish. It’s little wonder, then, that so many customers ended up with 48-month notes on personal luxury coupes like the Monte Carlo.

In the eighties and nineties, the market for cars like the Chevrolet Monte Carlo did not so much disappear as disintegrate, divided amongst smaller sporty coupes, symbols of Yuppie affluence like the BMW 3-series and a number of increasingly posh middle-class imports. A buyer looking for automotive distinction had a much broader array of choices in 1985 than in 1975 and the personal luxury cars enjoyed an ever-smaller share of that business.

All of the traditional American personal-luxury nameplates are dead now. While some of them may reemerge sooner or later (we’re confident there will eventually be another Thunderbird), we’re not sure that they will ever again be as iconic. There will be image cars for as long as the automobile survives, but the market has become even more balkanized than it was in the eighties. Modern customers presume a broad range of choices, from “cute utes” to fashion statements like the smart fortwo and MINI.

We wonder what future generations will consider the leading automotive icons of our era (our money is on the Toyota Prius). Whether those icons will be remembered with nostalgia or faint embarrassment is harder to say. Perhaps, like the Monte Carlo, it’ll be a little bit of both.

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Terry Henline, lead designer of the original Chevrolet Monte Carlo, went on to a long and successful GM career, including 17 years as chief designer for Pontiac and a stint as head of design for HUMMER. He retired in 2001. Designer Dave Holls eventually became design director for General Motors under Chuck Jordan. Holls, who later coauthored A Century of Automotive Styling with Michael Lamm, died on June 16, 2000. E.M. Pete Estes, general manager of Chevrolet when the Monte Carlo was conceived, became a GM director and executive vice president of the Operations Staff in October 1972, and served as GM president from 1974 to 1981. He died in 1988. John DeLorean, who shepherded the Monte Carlo through its launch and oversaw development of the hugely popular second-generation, became group executive of the Car and Truck Group in October 1972, but resigned from General Motors on April 2, 1973. He later founded his own company, DeLorean Motor Company, which ended up in receivership, leading to his infamous cocaine trafficking charges in 1982 (of which he was acquitted in 1984). DeLorean died in 2005.


Our sources on the development of the first-generation Monte Carlo included John Katz, “1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo: Grand Illusion,” Special Interest Autos #167 (September-October 1998), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar Chevrolets: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001); Robert C. Ackerson and Beverly Rae Kimes, Chevrolet: A History from 1911, Second Edition (Automobile Quarterly, 1986); Robert Genat and David Newhardt, Chevy SS: 50 Years of Super Sport (St. Paul MN: MBI Publishing Company LLC/Motorbooks, 2007); John L. Jacobus, The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild: An Illustrated History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005), and the author’s associated website (www.fisherguild. com, accessed 16 September 2009); and a brief phone conversation with Terry Henline on 1 October 2009. Jim Wangers clarified the relationship between the Pontiac Grand Prix and the Monte Carlo in a phone conversation with the author on 18 September 2009. We subsequently amended the text based on a comment from former Pontiac product planning chief Ben Harrison on 15 February 2010.

Some information on John DeLorean’s days at Chevrolet, including his confrontations with Lee Mays and Chevy’s angry dealer body, came from J. Patrick Wright, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean’s Look Inside the Automotive Giant (Chicago, IL: Avon Books, 1980). Irv Rybicki’s perspective on the development of the second-generation Monte Carlo came from his 1985 interview with Dave Crippen of the Benson Ford Research Center (David R. Crippen, “The Reminiscences of Irvin W. Rybicki,” 27 June 1985, Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673, The Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/Design/ Rybicki_interview.htm [transcript], accessed 30 September 2009). The recollections of designers Bill Porter, Leo Casillo, and Charles Stewart were provided in email correspondence with the author and designer Gary Smith of Dean’s Garage between 1 October and 7 October 2009, as well as George Mattar, “New Frontier,” Hemmings Muscle Machines November 2005.

We also consulted “Car Life Road Test: Monte Carlo SS454,” Car Life February 1970, reprinted in Chevrolet Muscle Cars 1966-1971 (Brooklands Road Test Books), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1990); “Preview Test: Chevrolet Monte Carlo,” Car and Driver Vol. 18, No. 3 (September 1972), pp. 30-32, 80, which coined the term “Grosse Pointe Gothic”; “Chevrolet Monte Carlo,” Road & Track Vol. 24, No. 10 (June 1973), pp. 150-152; the Chevrolet brochure “1973 Monte Carlo” (No. 2225, September 1972); and Terry Cook, “Chevrolet Monte Carlo: Still a bonbon for the masses but now with twenty percent fewer calories,” Car and Driver Vol. 24, No. 1 (January 1978), pp. 70-74. Some additional information came from Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996), the Old Car Brochures website, oldcarbrochures.org; the Chevrolet Monte Carlo Wikipedia® page (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chevrolet_Monte_Carlo, last accessed 30 September 2010). Production figures are primarily from the Productioncars.com Book of Automobile Production and Sales Figures, 1945-2005 (Np: Productioncars.com, 2006).

The film Saturday Night Fever was produced by Robert Stigwood, directed by John Badham, and written by Norman Wexler from a magazine article by Nik Cohn. The film was released by Paramount Pictures in 1977.


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  1. 1971 Monte Carlo’s ordering information showed RPO codes LS6 454 v8(425 gross horsepower) as an option for the SS package. Were any Monte Carlos ever produced with this option.

    1. I’ve seen at least two cars for sale that claimed to have factory stock LS6 engines — one even with an M22 four-speed, which was theoretically unavailable on the Monte Carlo. I have no factory production data, so your guess is as good as mine as to whether they’re really stock or not.

      It was certainly possible for buyers or dealers with the right connections to special order unusual combinations of options, including ones technically not allowed on a particular model. (That was how the “COPO” Camaros came to be.) It was also possible for the occasional car to be built with an unusual combination of options purely by accident — Chevy at that time had a staggering number of possible combinations, to the point where even the division had a hard time sorting it out.

      On the other hand, it wouldn’t be a difficult exercise for someone with a wrecked Chevelle SS454 to transplant the engine into a Monte Carlo and try to pass it off as a factory oddity, either…

      1. Did they mean that the 71-72 were .7 inches longer than the 70 M.C. or .7 longer than chevelle’s

        1. Oops, the ’71-’72 MC were 0.7 inches longer than the 1970 model. They were around eight inches longer than a Chevelle.

  2. Nope the Chevrolet 400 was complete different from Pontiacs, as was the case with the Chevy’s 350 and 454 V8s from other divisions. And Chevy had two different 400 engines from 1970 to 1972, the two-barrel version was a small-block (Turbo Fire) while the four-barrel was a big block (Turbo Jet) was really a 402-itself a bored-out 396. The 350 was also a small block and the 454 a big block.

    The 402 was dropped after 1972 and the only big block engine offered in 1973-75 Montes was the 454 Turbo Jet. The ’73 model was available with two 350s and a 454 while the ’74-75 models had specific engine offerings for 49-stats and California due to emission requirements:
    –350 2-bbl (std. 49 states, N/A California)
    –350 4-bbl (std. California)
    –400 2-bbl (opt. 49 states, N/A California)
    –400 4-bbl (opt. nationwide)
    –454 4-bbl (opt. nationwide)

    Engine lineup same except 400 2-bbl dropped and 454 no longer offered in California.

  3. And the 1976-77 Monte Carlos also had separate engine lineups for both Federal and California cars. For these two years, the smaller 305 became the standard engine along with the Turbo Hydra-matic transmission as virtually all 74-75 Montes came with the automatic and some Chevrolet sources indicated 100 percent for those years although it was still an extra-cost option.

    –305 2-bbl, 140 horsepower std. 49-states N/A California.
    –350 2-bbl, 145 horsepower opt. 49 states N/A California
    –350 4-bbl, 155 horsepower std. California N/A 49 states
    –400 4-bbl, 175 horsepower opt. 49 states and California.

    –305 2-bbl, 145 horsepower std. 49 states N/A California
    –350 4-bbl, 155 horsepower std. California N/A 49 states
    –350 4-bbl, 170 horsepower opt. 49 states N/A California.

  4. Monte Carlo interiors for 1970-72 were pretty much the same as other cars in this class with a split bench seat standard in cloth and vinyl upholstery with Strato bucket seats in all-vinyl or cloth and vinyl optional, and the center console was another option that had to be ordered separately that included the same Buick-like horseshoe shifter found in floor-shifted Chevelles and Camaros of that period.

    Also unique to Monte interiors for 1971-72 were the door pull straps and map pockets down on the carpeted lower sections.

    The restyled 1973-77 Monte Carlos had restyled instrument panels that placed controls within easy reach of the driver with the same burled-elm material as in previous years (replaced with rosewood for 1976-77). Split bench seats were again standard in knit cloth and vinyl or all-vinyl with Strato buckets optional in same. The Strato buckets of this period were of the swiveling type that could be turned 90 degrees for easier entry and exit. Those swiveling seats were also offered on Chevelles and El Caminos, along with Oldsmobile’s Cutlass S and 442 coupes – plus the ’75 Cutlass Supreme and Hurst/Olds on which the option not only included the swivel seats but also reversible cushions with one side in velour cloth and the other vinyl – similar to that of the mid-1950s Packard Caribbean.

  5. did chevy put pontiac motor’s in 1970 monte carlo since it was build on same frame.

    1. Nope. GM didn’t really start using “corporate” engines across multiple divisions until the eighties, although there were a few earlier exceptions, like the Olds 350 in the Cadillac Seville.

      The Pontiac 350 and 400 were completely different engines than the Chevy 350 and 400 of the same vintage. Other than being V8s, being made of cast iron, and having roughly similar displacements, they had nothing in common. Buick and Oldsmobile’s engines were also different.

      To make things even more confusing, Chevy offered both the big-block Turbo-Jet 400 (which was actually a slightly overbored 396, displacing 402 cubic inches) and the Turbo-Fire 400, a bored-out, long-stroke 350 small block. Again, two very different engines.

  6. Anybody know if the VIN has a code for COPO on a 2006? I recently purchaced one that is White/Black, without the SS emblems on the headrests. I have not seen that color combo before, or, no SS on the headrests. Thanks

  7. You comment that the 3 series success was hard to grasp.
    I think it may be simply the right car at the right time, in 1975 fuel economy was a bigger factor than it had been, the 3 series offered sprightly performance and excellent road manners and commendable fuel efficiency.
    It was a lot more comfortable than first impressions would suggest for those in the front, limited space in the back probably wasn’t a big factor for most buyers. Its spartan interior may even have helped sales, insofar as it gave an impression of teutonic efficiency, without uneccesary embellishments that served no great purpose.
    BMW had a fine reputation for building competent high quality cars in Europe, which the American “Yuppie” generation would be aware of, and German cars generally had a fine reputation for build quality from the humble VW Beetle to stratospherically priced Mercedes models. This helped keep resale values high which made its high initial purchase price lees of a drawback than it might have been.
    Auomatic transmission didn’t blunt the cars performance as much as similar sized cars either which helped, and manual cars had a fine easy to use gearshift.
    With hindsight it seems the 3 series found a unique niche in the market, perhaps in a similar way the Mustang in north America or the Ford Capri in Europe had. The niche BMW found has expanded over time, small refined sporty cars are ubiquitous now, BMW kept its 3 series firmly in that segment and is still the benchmark against which similar cars are judged.
    In the UK the 3 series actually outsold Ford Mondeos in some model years, but somehow still maintained its upmarket image.
    Alsoit has broadened its appeal to a wide range of buyers, from the young but reasonably salaried to retirees looking for a “final purchase” car.

    I am not a BMW afficianado, but I recognise their appeal as a well built car that does most things well but few things badly.


    1. The appeal of the 3-Series is not really terribly difficult to understand, but it has confounded quite a few of BMW’s rivals — not unlike the appeal of the VW Beetle to American buyers a few years earlier. (U.S. automakers tried to make the Beetle a benchmark for their own subcompacts, boasting that they beat the VW in one or another objective performance categories, which was totally missing the point.)

      In the U.S., I think it was primarily a reflection of the postwar Baby Boom generation’s knee-jerk rejection of their parents’ values. In general, the Boomers wanted nothing to do with the kind of ostentation on which their elders put such a premium. As kids, the Boomers wanted pony cars and muscle cars, but by the early ’70s the muscle cars were basically unaffordable and the Boomers were themselves starting to have kids, so they bought Beetles, Pintos, or perhaps a Datsun 510, Corolla, or Opel 1900 (nee Ascona), then a few years later a Rabbit (Golf) or Accord. By the late ’70s and early ’80s, a fair number of Boomers had more money to spend, but still didn’t want anything to do with the sort of big car status symbols their parents would have chosen. (The energy crisis helped in that regard, but I don’t think it was the main reason.) A 3er or Audi 4000 (80) was a way to get something reasonably sensible while also demonstrating your economic achievement and discriminating taste. The fact that the appeal of an E12 BMW was nearly incomprehensible to the Boomers’ parents certainly didn’t hurt.

      The junior executive cars in that class continue to do well in the U.S., of course, although for various reasons they haven’t done the same damage to the D-segment in the States that they have in the U.K. The main reason is probably that there’s still a significant price gap between a big non-premium car and a the premium brands; we don’t have the overlap that exists in the U.K. between low-line, four-cylinder 3ers and well-equipped Mondeos.

  8. How many Tony Stewart edition 1986 Monte Carlo SS were made was this something rare,this car is I need of restoration, but restoring it will ruin a couple of the stickers that help prove it is one,what do you advise?

  9. Great read! I’ve owned a few US icons over the years (GP-J, Impala, Monte’s and a late 60’s C’Dville). Those rides definitely gone but not forgotten. Chrysler throwing the 300 is the only throwback avail of late; GM SS is a good addition. Not sure if we’ll see much more.. Who will buy them? Certainly not the millenials and forward..

    1. Well, trying to market ANY new car to Millennials is a foredoomed notion at present because the Millennial generation has no money for new cars and isn’t likely to any time soon, since they’re facing an economy in which the deck is stacked against them in pretty much every conceivable way.

      All that makes the question of whether they would buy something like a retro Monte Carlo sort of a moot point, but I certainly wouldn’t assume kids wouldn’t be interested if they had money and if the price was right. Cars of the ’60s and ’70s are popular fixtures in movies and music videos (just the other day I went by a bus stop poster for the new Bastille album, which features a boat-tail Riviera), and kids are well removed from any baggage associated with the cars when they were new. Try showing a group of college-age kids pictures of the Nissan Figaro and ask how many would buy something like that if they could…

      The main dilemmas with “throwbacks,” as you aptly put it, are (a) that they’re sometimes too pricey for their own good (which has been the undoing of many of GM’s efforts in this area or the old Plymouth Prowler) and (b) they present a problem when the novelty has worn off; you then have to decide if you should just pull the plug or if there’s some way to update the product that cause the point to be lost in the process.

  10. I am the second owner of a 1973 Monti Carlo,it has the factory 454 4 bbl,300 auto trans,it only has less then 80,000 miles,& all original, my question is how many units came off the production line with the 454, also would this be considered to be a SS Monti Carlo since it has the factory 454,factory air,/ it has the cloth bench seat, the Chevy rally wheels,I can’t find anything else that would make it a SS. Thank you for your time in answering my request.

    1. There wasn’t a Monte Carlo SS for 1973, so your car is not an SS. There was an S model (which accounted for the largest share of ’73 Monte Carlo sales), but it was available with any engine. The 454 was optional on either S or Landau models.

      The disappearance of the previous SS option is not particularly surprising given its dismal sales. In retrospect, it’s puzzling that Chevrolet offered it only with the 454; had the SS package also been available with the 350 and 402 engines, it probably would have sold better and might have survived into the subsequent generation.

  11. How many units came off the production line in 1973 with the 454 CI/4BBL.thanks again.

    1. I’m afraid I don’t have a breakdown by engine type — sorry!

  12. I will say upfront I am a Chevy lover, but I don’t feel blindly so, for example, despite the popularity of the 55-57 Chevy, I feel Ford styling was better overall in the fifties, Ford styling in the 30’s has never been equaled, Chrysler made some beautiful late 60’s models. Further, Ford and Chrysler built good engines and transmissions, better in some ways than the ubiquitous Chevrolet. When I read articles such as this I often detect a snideness toward Chevrolet that that is not there for other makes, “We are not fans of Chevelle” for example. I suppose this comes with the territory of being No.1. I will now put forward a hard fact that will cause many to gnash their teeth in anger, that is Chevrolet’s success in racing. I am not going to focus on the big leagues of racing, even though that would be a bitter pill for fans of other brands. Across this great land of ours are literally hundreds of asphalt and dirt oval race tracks running thousands of races every weekend through the warm months of the year. In addition to Srint cars, in which only the engine would be brand representative, are Late Models, again generic cars with brand name engines. Then there are the “Hobby” classes in which actual cars from a third rate car lot or the weeds of a back yard are transformed into a race car, it is this category that actually relates to the term “Stock Car”. From the mid-60’s till recently it was quite common to go to the races and see nothing but Chevrolets. Not a single Ford. Not a single Mopar. 0. In recent years Ford has come on strong in Late Models with their engine program and half the field is now Ford. I put it to you bluntly; A. Chevrolet has won more races than any other brand. B. Chevrolet has won more races than all other makes combined. C. Chevrolet has won more races than all other makes combined by a staggering total. I know you will say “Who cares about some dirt track in Alabama?” Well, the blocks may be falling from under the mobile home and the kids need braces, but Briar Patch Speedway is having a $1000 to win Bomber Bash and Papa’s got a race to make! It’s important to some of us. Why would people who fanatically drive Ford and Dodge trucks use them to haul Camaro and Monte Carlo race cars to the track do it if there was a competitive alternative? It is the soundness of the basic design, horsepower, handling, toughness, ease of modification that comes through, this despite the Corporate missteps, blunders, blindness.

    1. I’m certainly not going to dispute the marketing impact of stock car or dirt track racing, which is obviously considerable (although by the ’70s, the relationship of stock cars to production cars was already becoming rather tentative). I’m also not going to dispute the power of ubiquity or what software geeks call backwards compatibility, although what that has to do with the ’70s Monte Carlo is harder to see.

      It’s not that I’m oblivious to Chevrolet’s considerable iconography; I’m just not moved by it. I don’t have anything in particular against Chevelles, but I don’t especially like them either, just as I don’t like beer, hamburgers, football, or various other popular American icons. My dislike of those things clearly matters little to their fans and connoisseurs, and in this case the reverse is also true.

  13. You are correct in postulating what does success in Saturday night short track racing by cars built in the 80’s have to do with anything. I guess its just a lonely last hurrah for a marque loyalist, a disappearing breed, made even worse when the company you championed primarily makes hum-drum people movers. [Wait a minute, isn’t that how Chevy usually operated?] A similar thing occurred when 30’s Fords were raced as “Modified” stock cars until the mid-fifties. I am told that MGB’s still win SCCA races which gives me a warm glow. I do believe something special happened when Ed Cole and Zora Arkus-Duntov decided to do something about that hum-drum Chevrolet image.

  14. I own a 76 Monte 400 4b. Was my fathers since new. Still rides and handles like a dream! I have yet to locate the build sheet. Looked in the front and rear seat springs, under the dash and inside the door panels. Any info on where else it could be? Please don’t say on top of the gas tank!
    Also…..curiously, when I looked up the numbers on the block, comes out as a 1974 400…..yes the numbers are matching to the car. Any info on why it has an older engine? Was wondering if it had anything to do with the fact that 76 was the last year for the 400 and maybe they were clearing out their old stock.


    1. I’m not sure what to make about the block numbers. The idea that it was an old stock engine built earlier than it was installed would seem plausible, but in the mid-70s, the emissions standards were changing so rapidly that an engine built to 1974 standards wouldn’t necessarily be legal for sale two years later! I can’t think of another obvious explanation. I’m afraid I’m not sure where you might find the build sheet, either. Perhaps someone who’s restored a Monte of this vintage would have a better idea.

  15. I have both a 73 Monte and a 77. The build quality and “stuff” is better on the 73. It has braces the 77 dosent have on the front sheet metal. Parts made from plastic on the 77 are metal o n the 73. You can easily see cost cutting. On another note I love both of them. The 77 ive had 25 years the 73 16 yrs its got a 454 too.

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